clean

Maintenance: Clean and Polish Your Frets

There's no doubt that a clean guitar is a longer-lived guitar, and there's an argument that cleaner frets are better for tone (although that one's a little less cut and dry). Want an even better reason to buff up those frets, though? Nice shiny frets are, simply, a pleasure to play on (that goes double in you like to bend strings). 

A little fret polishing should be part of everyone's regular maintenance routine. You don't need to go crazy and it doesn't need to take hours a week—a couple of minutes every now and then can work wonders, though. 

Incidentally, if you're wondering how often you should do this, or any sort of maintenance, it's a bit hard to say since every player's different. The best advice is to keep an eye on your fret condition—maybe when you change strings—and you'll soon get a feel for how long you can go between clean-ups. 

Frets don't rust or even corrode much but they can get tarnished, which can make them feel a little 'gritty' to play on. Unless it's been a long time between cleanings, however, a quick polish will generally have them shiny in a jiffy. 

Before: Dull, dull frets

After: Shiny, shiny frets

Now, this fret-shining job needs an abrasive of some sort. We have a few options: 

Steel Wool

Aftermath of steel wool on ONE fret—shed fibres and shavings.

Steel wool is the traditional choice and it does a great job at polishing. However, it does 'shed' and leave tiny shavings and slivers of itself behind. If you use steel wool, you need to be careful. Vacuum really well afterwards and whatever you do, don't rub any wool residue on your guitar body because it will scratch it. 

Steel wool comes in a different grades. You'll want the finest grade which is 0000. Don't use any other grade. 

Oh, and one last thing to be careful of: Because your pickups have a honking-great magnet inside, they will grab any steel wool shavings that come near. This isn't good so cover up your pickups really well before you start. 

Personally, I hate using steel wool. It's really good at the job but clean-up afterwards is a pain and it's almost impossible to prevent those fibres getting places you don't want. 

Find it: Your local hardware store or the entire internet.

Micromesh Finishing Abrasives

Micromesh is great. It's similar to sandpaper but it's fine abrasive is on a rubberised cloth backing rather than paper. It's nicely flexible and works really well.

Like sandpaper, it's available in different grits. I'll generally go with a couple in succession on each fret—2400 followed by 4000 (or similar). Sometimes I finish off with a higher grit if I'm feeling crazy but you'll get a good result with those grits. 

The drawback of Micromesh is that it's bloody expensive. You can wash out your paper to extend its lifespan but it still runs pretty steep. I use it for loads of jobs so I have the luxury of having it around but, if you just want it for frets, I'd move on to the next item below.

Some tools of the trade for polishing frets

Find it: Get it at Stewart McDonald or you can sometimes find it more cheaply on eBay if you're lucky. 

3M Polishing papers

Probably your best option. They're called polishing 'papers' but it's more like a thin fabric. It's flexible and comes in a number of fine grits or grades. Each grit comes in a different colour. I tend to use the grey 600-grit and follow it with the blue 1200-grit for a decent shine. 

D'Addario/Planet Waves sell some pre-cut, small sheets of the 1200-grit (blue) polishing paper in a pack as the Fret Polishing Kit. While this pack comes with a cardboard 'fret guard', you'll get a much better deal buying these papers in the larger, standard size and cutting them to size yourself. 

Find it: Planet Waves product at the usual virtual and real music stores. For the full-size sheet, Stewart McDonald sell 'em and you should find them in loads of places around the web if you Google it. 

Anything else I need? 

For tape, use only low-tack tape and be careful

You're not using very rough abrasives but it makes sense to protect your fingerboard (particularly if it's maple). You can use some low-tack tape (stick it on your shirt first to remove some stickiness) either side of a fret but that's a bit more time-consuming. If you decide to use tape, beware of lifting finish along the frets on a finished maple board or at the edges of any fingerboard. 

Fretboard guards are useful. They're really thin metal strips with a cut-out for the fret. They're handy if you plan to do this job regularly (and you should). 

Stew Mac have some—they come in a set of six so you can split the cost with three friends. Why three? Because you should cut the long sides of one guard so it fits between the higher frets on your guitar and keep another for the lower frets. Alternatively, search eBay for 'fretboard guards' or 'fingerboard protectors' and you should find sets with one narrow and one full-size guard. 

How to actually polish the frets

It's not rocket science. Pop your fret guard down, fold your polishing sheet to provide a little cushioning (which will help it conform to the fret contour), and rub. Start with the lower grit number and repeat with higher grade. 

Cleaning and polishing frets with 3M polishing papers

Easy like pie. 

Now string up and bend strings like a crazy person. 


Keep Your Guitar Hardware Clean

Keeping your guitar or bass clean is important. Now there are those of you out there who don’t care too much about how your guitar looks (and that’s cool if it’s your thing) but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about actually keeping your guitar working.

Guitar Screw Corrosion

We’ll leave the wood and finish to another day and consider your guitar’s hardware right now. You might be surprised by how many instruments I see where the hardware is utterly wrecked, inoperable and—sometimes—fit only for the scrapheap.

Your sweat is a guitar killer. Not to judge, mine is too. Over time, it eats into metal.

Really.

Given time, the acids and salt in anybody’s sweat will corrode through any metal bit of your guitar it can reach. Some people’s sweat is more acidic than others and will do the job much more quickly.

Screws

Guitar Screw Corrosion

Guitar Screw Corrosion

Guitar Screw Corrosion

These images show what a little sweat and a little time can do to the screws in your guitar. Once they get to this point, it’s pot-luck if they’ll screw out for replacing. Odds are pretty good that it’ll be impossible to get a grip or that the head will simply shear off when turned. This latter usually means the shaft has to be drilled out and that’s no fun.

Bridges

Bridges are under a player’s hand almost all the time and they take quite a beating from sweat corrosion. The most frequent issues are siezed saddle-height screws and intonation screws on Fender-style bridges.

Fender-style bridges can be completely destroyed by dirt and corrosion

Cleaning fluid can sometimes free up seized saddles.

It’s sometimes possible to save your original saddles and free-up the screws but don’t rely on it. An old Dan Erlewine trick involves soaking the parts in a cleaning solution of 3 parts naptha or lighter fluid and one part light oil (think Three-In-One or similar). This can sometimes free up siezed screws.

Remove the hardware from the guitar first and. if possible without damaging parts further, use a wire brush to brush off any loose crud. For particiularly nasty gunking, I’ll sometimes heat the parts a little before soaking them (NOT red-hot, of course). 

A very serious word of caution at this: Naptha/Lighter Fluid is (obviously) massively flammable. It’s also very unpleasant to breathe. You don’t want it on your skin and you certainly don’t want it in your eyes. If you’re going to try this, take proper precautions. Wear gloves and goggles. Work outside to avoid fumes. BE CAREFUL. This stuff is dangerous—treat it as such.

After a day’s soaking, carefully dry the parts (and carefully dispose of the rags you use—they’re now flammable too). If you’re lucky, the screws will be free to move.

Pickups

If your pole-pieces or screws begin to corrode, that corrosion can carry on, eating its way down into the innards of your pickup. Once your coil wire (and its insulating coat) begins corroding it's re-wind or replace. 

Pickup pole pieces and screws/slugs can carry corrosion into the coil

Corroded pickup poles can cause the coil wire to break down


PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE

I’m guessing you want your guitar to last a while before you have to scrap it or buy new hardware.

I’m also guessing you’re dreading the advice to carefully clean every part of your guitar after every use.

Well, that’s obviously the best thing to do. However, let’s be practical—that’s not what you, or anyone, really wants to do. So, I’ll suggest the following steps as a compromise.

  • If you tend to sweat a lot during gigs or rehersals, throw one of those absorbant cloths in your case and do a very basic wipe-down after you play. Seriously, I’m talking ten seconds here. It won’t kill you and it will help you not kill your guitar.
  • Buy a cheap toothbrush and leave it in your case. Whenever you change strings, give your bridge and other hardware a good brushing. Pay attention to the nooks and crannies. You don’t need to go nuts—just take one minute to do it and you’ll help prevent the build-up of crud. Just make it part of your string-changing ritual.

Easy, eh?

Save a guitar and save a repair guy from thinking, “Eeeewwwwwww!” ;-)